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Ms Keeble: I have pressed my right hon. Friend often on the private fostering of children, in particular those brought from Africa. I had not picked up the exact implications of clause 14, so I hope that she can say more about its impact on protecting the welfare of such children.
Beverley Hughes: I know that the issue is of great concern to my hon. Friend, and I share that concern, but she is straying on to the important issue of the regulation of private foster carers, which was considered during the passage of the Children Act 2004, which strengthened the notification scheme. A sunset provision was included, so that in the event that the notification scheme does not produce the desired results, we can introduce a registration scheme. My hon. Friend knows that we are actively monitoring the impact of the notification scheme and will come to a decision on its effectiveness. It is an important issue.
Taken as a whole, the Bill offers an improvement in life chances to some of the most vulnerable children in our society and elsewhere. It carries on our commitment to improving outcomes for children based on their individual needs, founded on the principle that whatever the situation, and however severe the conflict between adults, we must put the children first. While there are some contentious issues about precisely how we approach thatin such an emotional area, it would be strange if there were not I believe that that principle unites the House. We all agree that the needs of children should be paramount, and that that should be the standard to which we hold any change we consider to children's legislation. The Bill has been prepared with that principle firmly in mind and will give children
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facing extremely challenging circumstances a better chance of positive outcomes during their childhood and in later life. I commend it to the House.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): This is yet another Bill with "children" in the title, and is not to be confused with the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the Children Act 2004 or the Children Act 1989. I wish that we could find different titles for Bills, as I have suggested in Committee before now, because it is so confusing. Perhaps we can address that point when we cover the short title in Committee.
This is an important Bill that addresses an important problem. I must first say how disappointed I am with the programme motion, which provides only two days in Committee. My understanding was that we would have four days, or eight sessions.
Tim Loughton: There must have been some confusion, because the understanding of our Whips was for four days. I hope that the confusion can be cleared up and, given the constructive spirit in which we have dealt with other legislation involving the Minister, I hope that we can change the motion. Two days for a complex Billalthough it is short, it is complex, especially in clause 1is a short time, and we will have several amendments to table and debate.
The Bill has been a long time coming. We have waited patiently for it since it finished its passage through the other place on 14 November, almost four months ago. It is more than six months since it started its passage there on 29 June. Why has it taken so long, especially as the Bill has changed little since it was originally presented? It was preceded by the parental separation Green Paper in July 2004, the next steps progress report in January 2005, the draft Bill and the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, and there is some mystery about why it has taken so long to progress.
We are also disappointed that, although the Government have recognised in introducing the Bill that this serious issue needs tackling, it will fail to provide effective and lasting solutions to the problems that the Minister outlined. I have some questions about who is running the legislation, given the history of turf wars between the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department for Education and Skills on the early interventions project and others. The cross-departmental responsibilities of the Minister for Children and Families are being tested in this case, because it is no secret that Departments have dissented on the early interventions project.
I do not wish to break the consensus of wishing the best for childrenwhich we all dobut the Bill is a limp fudge that lacks teeth and relies on a court infrastructure that is already creaking under its workload. It is at full stretch, as the hon. and learned Member for Redcar
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(Vera Baird) suggested. In short, we have some severe reservations about the Bill and will seek to amend it substantially.
It was worrying that, in response to some of the detailed questions that we tried to put to the Minister about how the breaking of contact orders and compensation may work, she kept saying that it was a matter for the courts to decide. That is true, but the introduction of the Bill is a recognition of the existence of a problem, and the courts need to have a much stronger steer on how to use some of the mechanisms that will be introduced to deal with that problem. I hope that in Committee she will not keep falling back on the mantra that it is up to the courts to decide. Of course the courts must decide in individual cases, but they need a strong steer on what the legislation is intended to achieve. That is why we need the detail on how compensatory contact might work, if that is to be one of the measures available.
Vera Baird: I am anxious to probe what the hon. Gentleman means and what sort of strong steer he thinks should be given. Surely the judge will have powers under the Bill to apply appropriately in each case, given its individual complexities and his training, background and experience. What more guidance can the hon. Gentleman offer to the judiciary?
Tim Loughton: The hon. and learned Lady has already mentioned contempt of court, which is one penalty that can be applied at the moment, but the courts are reluctant to use it. The measures in the Bill include penalties for breaches of contact and we need to have clearly set out the expectations as to how those penalties will be escalated if breaches continue to occur. If the Minister says it is up to the courts, the position will remain confused and that is why we need to tease out more detail on that issue in Committee.
Vera Baird: I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds this attempt to clarify the questions as helpful as I do. If my right hon. Friend the Minister produced the record, I suspect that, although we would find that few courts had actually sent parents with primary care to prison, there are probably more cases where they use that threat. Indeed, the district judges who tell people that if they do not comply they will have to bring their toothbrush with them when they next come to court show that the threat is used. Surely the point of the legislation is to remove that dilemma for the courts, because it is bad for a child if their primary carer is sent to prison. There is a raft of different measures, so in what sense is the Bill failing to deal with the problem?
I agree that the worst outcome for the parent, and especially for children, is for the parent to end up in prison, which is certainly not something we want. That is why it is essential that there is a scale of penalties with a realistic expectation of imposition. The hon. and learned Lady rightly says that few people, if any, go to prison, so if the threat of that penalty is never actually carried out, it is not much of a threat. I was trying to tease out whether the details of the scale of penalties that the Bill sets out, and which we want to be better set out, will be imposed by the courts if necessary. A threat can only be any good if it is realistic and credible, and somebody believes it will be carried out.
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Ms Keeble: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of us welcome the provision precisely because we have had to take up cases of constituents who have been utterly terrified by being told in court that they will be sent down for not letting a violent ex-partner have contact with their child? The courts are used to dealing with people who get into debt or who have financial liabilities, even though they are on benefits and can make repayments only at a low rate. It is perfectly possible for the courts to deal with such cases without their being set out in the Bill. The provisions are a welcome alternative to sending women down for refusing contact to violent ex-partners.
Tim Loughton: If there is a threat of violence to an ex-partner and his or her children, I entirely agree that a breach of contact may be justifiable and the Bill makes provision for thatit is a matter on which the court must be satisfied. The Bill also includes clause 7 on risk assessments, which we welcome, and which will provide clearer evidence of the strength of the risk. However, unless the risk is provenunless the case is putthe assumption should still be that a contact order granted by a court should be adhered to and it is up to the person who has breached the order to prove why he or she was justified in doing so. If not, and if the risk assessment does not show that there has been a threat of violence, the penalties should be invoked. I am not in any way trying to put at any more risk someone who is at threat from violence, or indeed, his or her children, but the person who uses that excuse with no vindication must realise that there are realistic penalties that will be enforced.
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